First Sunday after Epiphany, first three years in Leipzig

Jesus among the Doctors, by Quinten Matsijs (1456/1466-1530), oil on canvas, created 1509-1511. National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal.

For this Sunday, the first after Epiphany, Bach wrote a new cantata every year during his first three years in Leipzig. All three cantatas are beautiful, and all three are more or less based on the story of Mary and Joseph dealing with the angst of not being able to find their 12-year-old son.

Whether you’d like to learn about all the different ways Bach illustrates this story in his writing, or just listen to the beautiful music, or see how Veronese or Dürer painted this subject, you can find it all in two previous posts on this blog. In 2016 I wrote about Cantata 154 from 1724 and Cantata 32 from 1726. In 2018 I wrote about Cantata 124 from 1725. I’ve updated all the links for recordings in all those posts, so it should all work, and these are all great cantatas. Happy listening!

Wieneke Gorter, January 11, 2020.

There are Bach cantatas I do not like

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Cantata 122 for the Sunday after Christmas Das neugeborne Kindelein. Part of the title page of the manuscript. The handwriting is by J.A. Kuhnau, one of Bach’s most important copyists.

Since I most recently wrote about Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day (Cantata 110), and the Third Day of Christmas (Cantata 151) from 1725, I had thought it would be nice to write about the two cantatas Bach performed directly after that: Cantata 28 for the Sunday after Christmas 1725, and Cantata 16 for New Year’s Day 1726.

But I don’t like them. I was listening to them yesterday and today together with my adolescent daughter, who’s pretty well versed in Baroque composers, and she said: “the first one doesn’t even sound like Bach!” I agree with her. Or at least it doesn’t sound that inspired to me. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but sometimes I don’t like what Bach wrote.

So, for this Sunday after Christmas in 2019, I’m again playing Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, which I’ve already discussed twice on this blog, most elaborately in 2017. You can find that post here.

Wieneke Gorter, December 28, 2019.

Sweet soprano consolation for Third Christmas Day 1725, or "the one with the dirty baby"

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The Nativity of Christ, by Federico Barocci, ca. 1590. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Sometime in the first decade of this century, after I had already moved to the USA, my mother acquired Gardiner’s Christmas Cantatas CD from 2000 (Volume 15 of the Cantata Pilgrimage CD series). I remember that every time a Bach lover came to visit they were urged to listen to the soprano aria from this CD. Among my mother, her sisters, and my grandma, this CD became known as “the one with the dirty baby.” (or as they said in Dutch “die met het vieze kindje”). At some point my mother allegedly said to them that this particular recording should be played at her funeral. Listen a bit to that Gardiner recording of Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt with Gillian Keith, soprano, and Rachel Beckett, flute, here on YouTube. Just listen for a little bit, because a much better recording of this cantata is coming up in this post! When the time came (much sooner than anyone in the early 2000s could have thought) to plan my mother’s funeral, we were blessed with a live performance, not a recording, I personally didn’t remember the “dirty baby” story that vividly, and we opted for another aria instead (read more about that here).

I don’t remember ever hearing anything more from the CD with the dirty baby than this one aria, and I never ever realized it was from a cantata for the Third Day of Christmas. (Read here why I didn’t know any other cantatas for the Third Day of Christmas than the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio.)

Swedish soprano Maria Keohane

Fast forward to last week, when I was researching new live video recordings for Cantata 110 for Christmas Day, and discovered that the Christmas concert by the Netherlands Bach Society from 2015 also featured this Cantata 151, and that Maria Keohane does an absolutely beautiful job singing that opening movement. I also enjoy all the other soloists. Watch this live recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Frank Theuns, flute; Maria Keohane, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; and Matthias Winckhler, bass. Interestingly, Maria Keohane has recorded this cantata on video with two other ensembles: Concerto Copenhagen and Ricercar Consort. Those other performances are good too, but I very much prefer the performance and the camera work on this one with the Netherlands Bach Society.

Find the text of Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt here, and the score here.

Wieneke Gorter, December 26, 2019.

The message continues

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Adoration of the Christ Child by Josse Lieferinxe, ca. 1500. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

While in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio the Second Christmas Day is all about the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus, in some other cantatas for this Day Bach further explores why Jesus came on earth. That is also the case in Cantata 40 Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes. While it is full of references to snake-like evil in the text, that cantata still means Christmas holiday to me. Read about it in my blog post from 2016, now with updated YouTube links.

Please check back here tomorrow for a beautiful live recording of a cantata not previously discussed on this blog for Third Christmas Day.

Wieneke Gorter, December 24, 2019.

Bach and the Christmas Day message

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The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, by Gerard David, ca. 1510-15. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Moren information about this painting can be found here.

On this blog I have shared only two of Bach’s compositions for Christmas Day so far: Cantata 91 from 1724 here, and of course the first cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (our family’s “wake-up call” on Christmas morning) from 1734 here. But Bach wrote at least three more cantatas for this day, as well as his Magnificat.

Today I’d love to share Cantata 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter) from 1725. Find The Netherlands Bach Society’s live recording of this cantata here on YouTube.

Find the text with English translations here, and the score here.

This live video registration has an abundance of Christmas presents for me: the festive setting of the Grote Kerk in Naarden; soprano Maria Keohane in a Scandinavian Christmas dress and truly enjoying herself; tenor Charles Daniels, always a delight; a promising new young bass, Matthias Winckhler, who can actually sing every note of the enormously challenging bass aria in this cantata; and the best gift of all: Alex Potter singing the alto aria, which to me is the most moving part of this cantata, and also the core message Bach wanted to communicate to his fellow believers on this Christmas Day in 1725.

Alex Potter. Photo by Annelies van der Vegt.

For the joyous opening of this cantata, Bach re-uses his Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069) to grandly illustrate the “arrival” of Jesus. In the center of the cantata, after the festivities of the opening chorus, but before the very pretty Christmas-y “Glory to God in the highest” soprano-tenor duet, and an impressive bass aria with trumpet, the music goes into a minor key, and also turns inward, in the alto aria. The text of that alto aria is as follows:

Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind,
Ah, Lord, what is a child of man
Dass du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchest?
that you should seek his salvation with so much pain?
Ein Wurm, den du verfluchest,
A worm whom you curse
Wenn Höll und Satan um ihn sind;
when hell and Satan are around him;
Doch auch dein Sohn, den Seel und Geist
but also your son, whom soul and spirit
Aus Liebe seinen Erben heißt.
Through love call their inheritance.

Of course this text refers to the believers in general, that on the one hand they are worms, and on the other hand will be saved by Jesus. but I feel the choice of the word “Menschenkind” is not a coincidence. It definitely also refers to the the fact that Jesus can’t just stay in the godly realm, but in order to be a true savior, he has to come to earth, become man, and go through all the rotten reality that might imply. This theme appears more or less prominently in all Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day, and in this cantata 110 it is already announced in the tenor aria:

Er wird Mensch, und dies allein,
He has become man, and this only
Dass wir Himmels Kinder sein.
so that we may become children of heaven.

Nine years later, in the first cantata of his Christmas Oratorio, Bach also stresses this “coming to earth” and “becoming man” of Jesus on this first Christmas Day, in what is also the most moving and inward-looking part of that particular cantata: the soprano-bass duet. The text Bach gives to the bass in that duet is as follows. Note the last line.

Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn,
Who will rightly extol the love
Die unser Heiland vor uns hegt?
that our Saviour cherishes for us?
Ja, wer vermag es einzusehen,
Indeed, who is able to realise
Wie ihn der Menschen Leid bewegt?
how he is moved by human suffering?
Des Höchsten Sohn kömmt in die Welt,
The highest’s son came into the world
Weil ihm ihr Heil so wohl gefällt,
because its salvation pleases him so well
So will er selbst als Mensch geboren werden.
that he himself is willing to be born as a man.

Merry Christmas!

Wieneke Gorter, December 24, 2019

Two Weimar cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Advent

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For the fourth Sunday of Advent, Bach wrote two cantatas in Weimar: Cantata 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn in 1715, and Cantata 147a Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben in 1716.

Bach rewrote Cantata 147, the same way he did that with cantatas 70 and 186, into a cantata for another time of the year in Leipzig, in this case the feast of the Visitation on July 2, 1723. Read more about that here in my post from 2016. I have now updated that post with a link to the wonderful live performance of Cantata 147 by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with with Hana Blažiková, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.

Cantata 132 was not transformed into a cantata for another time in the church year in Leipzig, so today’s performances of this cantata still reflect the Advent cantata from Weimar. Watch a beautiful live performance of this cantata by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; and Dominik Wörner, bass.

Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.

As I already pointed out in my Advent Calendar earlier this week, the text of the joyful opening aria refers to the story of John the Baptist, who was believed to have come to prepare the way for Jesus, and includes the Isaiah quote as it appears in the scripture: “Messias kömmt an!” (The Messiah is coming). Bach gives this text to the soprano three times, and to give it extra emphasis, each time omits all instrumental accompaniment on those three words.

The rest of the cantata stays close to the story of John the Baptist. The bass aria refers to the Pharisees interrogating John, but then Bach’s text writer (Salomo Franck, who was also the Weimar court librarian) projects the question “Wer bist du?” (Who are you?) onto the believer: ask your conscience: are you a true person or a false person?

As a child, I was enormously impressed by this bass aria, even more than by the wonderful soprano aria at the beginning of the piece. I loved how Max van Egmond sings the “Wer bist du?” text on the Leonhardt recording from 1983. You can find that recording, and read more about those childhood memories, in this blog post from 2016. I had no idea at the time that in those very cool opening notes Bach is quoting this organ piece by Buxtehude. I only learned that this week, by watching the “extra videos” the Netherlands Bach Society provides along with their live recordings on All of Bach.

If you are not following this blog yet, please consider signing up (on the left of this text if you are on a desktop computer, at the bottom of this post when you are reading on a smartphone). This way you won’t miss any posts about the many cantatas Bach wrote for all three Christmas Days (yes there were three in his time), New Year’s Day, and the Sundays after those feast days.

Wieneke Gorter, December 21, 2019.

Third Sunday of Advent

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To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.

As I mentioned last week, when Bach worked in Weimar, he wrote a cantata for each of the 4 Sundays in Advent. For Sunday December 13, 1716, the third Sunday of Advent, he wrote the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht. No original music score is left of this cantata. However, thanks to Bach’s librettist, Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, who published the full libretto for this cantata in a poetry volume in 1717, we do have the original text of 186a.

And, it is not hard to make an educated guess as to what the music would have been. Read all about it in my blog post from 2016 and 2017.

To listen to a beautiful soprano/alto duet that appeared for sure in the Weimar and the Leipzig versions of this cantata, click here. Katharine Fuge, soprano, and Richard Wyn Roberts, alto, with the English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (Live recording. Ansbach, 2000).

Wieneke Gorter, December 11, 2019.

To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.

Second Sunday of Advent

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Tomorrow is the second Sunday of Advent.

When Bach worked in Weimar, he wrote a cantata for each of the 4 Sundays in Advent. However in Leipzig, music (other than chorale singing) was not allowed in the churches in the period between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day. In order to still use (and show off?) the Weimar Advent cantatas in Leipzig he reworked and expanded most of them for other times of the church year in Leipzig.

He truly mastered this rewriting process with cantata 70, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!, originally written for 2nd Advent in Weimar in 1716, but now dramatically expanded for the 26th Sunday after Trinity, November 21, 1723. 

Read much more about the reworking process and about this particular cantata in this Weekly Cantata post from 2016, which now includes a new link to the excellent live video performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation.  

Wieneke Gorter, December 7, 2019.

The Shining Star of the Netherlands Bach Society

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Shunske Sato, concertmaster since 2013 and artistic director since 2018 of the Netherlands Bach Society. Photo by Dana van Leeuwen.

To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.

Several people have asked me what made me start writing for this blog again. The answer is simple: Shunske Sato’s violin playing in the “Mein Verlangen” tenor aria from Cantata 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde. I had already heard that Sato was “a good one” from people with authority on the matter, and had enjoyed listening to his recordings, but it took these live concerts to experience the magic that happens when he is a soloist in a Bach aria.

During a visit to my home country, the Netherlands, I attended the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All Souls” concerts on October 31 in the Grote Kerk in Naarden and on November 3 in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. I had been unsure how to talk about these concerts in the framework of this blog, especially now that it’s more than a month ago and we’re in Advent already (yes there is Advent music in this post, please keep reading) and there is no recording of these concerts.

Solo sonatas and partitas on All of Bach

But it turns out that this week is the perfect time for a spotlight on Shunske Sato, because this Thursday December 5, 2019, the Netherlands Bach Society will publish the final episode of his series of solo violin sonatas and partitas on All of Bach, their online video archive of Bach performances. Just click on this link and the entire series is right there, under “recently added.”

Sato was appointed concertmaster of the Netherlands Bach Society in 2013, and became their artistic director in June 2018. For the concerts I attended, he was concertmaster only, having invited alto Alex Potter to program and lead this production. (Alex Potter deserves a blog post too, but that will come later). By inviting a different guest director for each program, Sato has breathed fresh air into the he group of musicians I feel.

Instead of the standard biographies, the program booklet featured personal stories from Sato and the four vocal soloists. As a person who’s produced many program books in her lifetime, I felt this was a breath of fresh air too. And as a mom of two teenagers who are finding their way through school and life, I especially liked this part from Sato’s story:

“Things got tricky in my teens: I began spending lots of time away from school playing concerts, and my grades at school were impressively low (except for French and Maths).  Giving up on school, I often spent my weekdays at my favorite bookstore instead and read about history, computer programming and linguistics, and composed string quartets.  Saturdays always came as a relief: classes and lessons at the Juilliard School in New York, where hung out with my “real” friends.”

Playing Weimar style

Back to what happened in the concert in Naarden on October 31. For this entire program, the violinists were playing one-on-a-part, the same way it was probably done in Weimar, where Bach first performed Cantata 161 on the small organ loft in 1716. This meant that Sato was thus the instrumental soloist in the tenor aria “Mein Verlangen,” and with the rest of the ensemble completely in sync with him, he could truly do his own thing.

And then there was light

Shunske Sato in Naarden, October 31, 2019. Photo by Hans van der Woerd, courtesy of The Netherlands Bach Society.

And boy, did he do that! Every time he played the “Mein Verlangen” theme, he stretched the tempo just a little bit, every time slightly differently. It created a halo over the entire aria. Even though the tenor wasn’t singing yet, the text was already there: the longing (“Verlangen”) but also the pure radiance (“reiner Schein”) of the soul and the image of angels. He truly brought light into the music, and also for me personally into my heart and mind. It made all my frustrations and worries melt away, and it made the other instrumentalists play and tenor Thomas Hobbs sing with even more inspiration than they already had in this concert.

“The more I let go, the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story”

Witnessing Sato communicate the text of the aria before the singing started, I was immediately reminded of this wonderful interview with him for All of Bach. It is specifically about the “Erbarme dich” aria from the St. Matthew Passion, but his message “The more I let go and the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story…” applies just as well to this aria that I saw him play.

I went to the “All Souls” concert again three days later in the beautiful concert venue the Nieuwe Kerk has become. Sato’s playing there was possibly even more moving and the effect on those on stage and in the audience possibly stronger too. Several people had tears in their eyes.

Watch for yourself in this Advent aria

See the “Sato magic” happen in the soprano aria from Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor on All of Bach, with soprano Zsuzsi Tóth. Never did I enjoy a “da capo” this much. To read more about this cantata, the third one Bach wrote (or adapted) for the first Sunday of Advent, read my blog post from 2017 here.

With special thanks to Marloes Biermans and Annelie Bulsing of the Netherlands Bach Society for their generosity in providing photos and copy for me to use,

Wieneke Gorter, December 3, 2019.

To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.